My next door neighbor and I like to joke that we might as well be sister wives; we share clothes and borrow things out of each other’s refrigerators Our kids — who are 13, 11, 9 and 5 — adore each other and go back and forth between our houses all the time. They know where we keep the snacks and the drinks and who is allowed to watch what on television and which rooms are off limits during Nerf gun battles.
My sons refer to Rita as their “backup mother,” and we call her daughter (the only girl in the group) their “pretend sister.” Last summer, we tore down the fence between our yards, partly because it was falling over, but largely because it just made it that much easier for the children to get where they were going.
She is the best sister wife a girl could have — but not just because she has a trampoline in her yard and I have a basketball goal in mine and we both always have wine in the fridge. Our sister wife bond was really cemented by the fact that we’re each raising a quirky kid.
About a year after we moved in, Rita asked if I could do her a favor. Her son had been having some issues at preschool and she and her husband were going to meet with the school’s psychologist. Could I keep an eye on him during the meeting?
I said, “Of course! I would love to.” I mean, that’s what neighbors are for.
She called me from the car on her way home. “They think he has something called sensory integration dysfunction,” she told me, sounding a little baffled.
“Oh,” I replied breezily, “we have that at our house.”
There was a long pause and then she said, “You have GOT to be kidding.” There she was, thinking that she was the only parent in the world with an oddball kid…and there I was, living right next door, with my own oddball child. “Come over,” I said, “and we’ll talk about SID.”
Over the years, I have carefully created a village of friends with quirky kids. My husband recently commented on this, about the fact that so many couples we know have a kid on the spectrum. He mused about higher rates of diagnosis and wondered if we are just seeing a generation of children with more of these types of disabilities.
I think that’s possible, but I have another theory. I think that parents of quirky kids — particularly moms, and particularly in the elementary and middle school years — gravitate toward each other. We get what it’s like to live with the kid who only eats five foods, who cannot wear clothing with tags, who can’t stand noise or bright lights or the feel of dirt on his hands. We joke about our kids’ weird behaviors, but we also worry about them, obsessively sometimes, and because of that, we instinctively turn toward the sympathetic adults, the ones who nod understandingly when we talk about that year where our child wore all his shirts turned inside out because the seams were too much for him to stand.
We’ve been there. We’re still there. We may as well just build our village there, because we’re not going anywhere else.
My quirky parent friends aren’t my whole social circle. I am also friendly with the parents of the kids Charlie plays sports with. I spend a lot of time with them; we take each other’s boys to practices and games and out for pizza. We arrange for them to go to the batting cages and to open gym together. We spend hours sitting together on various uncomfortable bleachers, in gyms and at ball fields all over the city. I like those parents very much, but they are not my village. They are not the people I reach out to when Henry is struggling to get through the week or the day or the hour, when I feel like I am failing and cannot do this one more minute.
My friend Chris and I have a long-running joke: One of us will text the other to say, I am going to kill the boy. And the other will text back: I have bail money for you. In that moment, we don’t need advice or strategies or solutions — we have therapists and doctors and husbands for that — what we need is another mom to say yes, I get it. And yes, you will survive this. And if you don’t, I am here for you — no judging, no criticism, just bail money. And maybe a nice bottle of wine.
So why do I know so many moms of quirky kids? Because as Henry has gotten older, I have gotten less reserved about his issues, less worried that someone will think his behavior is my fault, and more willing to share what I know, to be a kind of walking “It Gets Better” advertisement for parents of other quirky kids. At a basketball tournament over the summer, I was chatting with another mom about the team, and she very quietly confessed that her son has ADD. I nodded and said, “Our older son has ADHD.” She immediately fired a round of questions at me: Who did our testing? Was our son on medication? Had we ever had occupational therapy? How did the school handle his situation?
I wanted to say, welcome to the village. We’re here for you. Instead, I gave her the name of our psychologist and told her to call me any time. And I meant it.
When I told my friend Danielle that I would be writing this column, she said, “Every post is just going to be an open letter to me, isn’t it?” Her son is younger than Henry but has many of the same anxiety issues; her texts to me often start with “Does Henry ever [insert behavior here]?” She doesn’t necessarily want to know what I do about that particular behavior, she just wants to know she’s not alone. A disproportionate number of my texts back to her start with, “Oh honey. I’m so sorry.” Because I am — I get it and know how hard it is and I’m so sorry she has to slog through that. But at least we’re in this together. Always.
Do you have a support network — a village — of your own?